Editor's note: In June our Sugar Rush correspondent Kathy YL Chan set out to find the best ice cream sandwiches in New York City. When we found out she had a similar obsession with madeleines, we asked her to do the same. Here is her report. --Zach
There's no taste I crave more than that of a perfect madeleine. All I ask for is a single sweet creation, a simply scalloped underbelly, and golden topside hump. The exterior must bear the slightest crisp and break into a tender interior that's lemony and moist, with just a touch of sweetness.
In a city full of wonderful bakeries, madeleines, sadly, do not receive just attention. The city is spotted with temples devoted to cookies (Levain) and scones (Alice's Tea Cup), and nearly overrun by cupcake-centric bakeries (Magnolia). But where are the madeleines?
Unlike cookies and cakes, the majority of bakeries in the city omit madeleines from their daily repertoire of baked goods. A few places, such as Duane Park Patisserie (179 Duane Street, New York NY 10013), make them to order, with a dozen-piece minimum. Payard, on the Upper East Side (1032 Lexington Avenue; 212-717-5252), offers madeleines as part of its afternoon tea. Remainders, if any, are then sold individually at the patisserie. (Call before you go.) To taste Café Boulud's dainty madeleines, warm from the oven, you have to make a meal of it—the madeleines are served in an assortment of petit fours for dessert only.
While madeleines aren't as common as other baked goods, they're not rare, either. The difficulty comes in finding a good madeleine, much less an excellent one. Here's my breakdown.
Oro Bakery holds the honor of the most attractive madeleine I've ever seen. In color, stature, and size, Oro's madeleine embodies all the best aesthetic qualities you could hope for in a madeleine. I've expounded on the beauty of this treat once before, but it's worth returning to again. The Oro madeleine, golden with a regal aura, bears a splendid hump, with edges a touch darker and crisper than the rest. Hints of lemon flow though the fine, even crumb. The focus is on quality of flavor and not sugar, which means its bottom shell of dark chocolate is the perfect complement to the cake component. 375 Broome Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-941-6368
The madeleine at Bouchon Bakery, in the Time Warner Center, isn't much to look at. It's a humpless creation that doesn't deserve the dance and festive tra-la-la that an Oro madeleine inspires. But the flavor is one I'd love to capture. Light with a slightly crisp exterior, this is the most lemony of all the madeleines I've had, and it's moist and oh so delicate.
My dream madeleine would be the love child of Oro and Bouchon's, coupling the appearance of Oro's with the flavors and essence of Bouchon's. Then, we would all be eternally blissful. 10 Columbus Circle, New York NY 10019 (map); 212-823-9366
At Balthazar Bakery, madeleines come in chocolate and pistachio varieties in addition to the standard lemon. The chocolate is reminiscent of a sunken soufflé, dark, rich, and velvety. It's undeniably delicious but fails to embody the qualities of a classic madeleine in form and texture. The pistachio, with its extra-moist, nearly mushy texture, also fails to meet the criteria of a classic madeleine. 80 Spring Street, New York NY 10012 (map); 212-965-1785
Across the street from Balthazar is Ceci-Cela, where lemon- or pistachio-flavored madeleines are sold in five packs (mini or regular sizes). The soft-green hue of the delicate pistachio cookie hints at the well-flavored single bite you're in for, each madeleine studded with an individual candied pistachio—all with a dry crumb. 55 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012 (map); 212-274-9179
Ringing in at just 70¢ a piece, Financier's madelines are not half bad, though the cookies taste more of vanilla than lemon and have an uneven, sometimes dry crumb. That said, they're beautiful in appearance, carrying a hump only third in size, behind Oro and Almondine. 62 Stone Street, New York NY 10004 (map); 212-344-5600
Appearances are most deceiving at the Carroll Gardens location of Sweet Melissa Patisserie in Brooklyn, where, at $1.50, the madeleines are more than twice the price of Financier. Sweet Melissa's madeleines, which come in brown-butter pistachio, chocolate-hazelnut, and chestnut-honey, are sugary with a moist but extremely dense crumb. Sticky skin coupled with a compacted crumb results in an unusually chewy cookie. Quality difference is easily spotted in madeleines because few ingredients are involved—this is why madeleines are easy to make but even easier to screw up. In a side-by-side comparison of the chocolate madeleine at Balthazar and Sweet Melissa's, there is no comparison between the two—the higher quality chocolate employed at Balthazar is clearly distinguishable and makes all the difference. 276 Court Street, Brooklyn NY 11231 (map); 718-855-3410
Almondine, in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, offers a rather unusual madeleine, displayed in a glass jar next to the register. It is a cake-like, fluffy madeleine. Madeleines should be moist and tender but never fluffy. My first thought as I bit into it: "This is a madeleine for beginners!" It sort of eases you into what is kind of, but not exactly, a madeleine. It was gentle, inviting, evenly colored and beautiful with a high hump— it's the Stepford wife of madeleines. But oh man, was it fluffy. There was no differentiation in texture between crumb and exterior. 85 Water Street, Brooklyn NY 11201 (map); 718-797-5026
On that note, madeleines deserve respect. More often than not, they are haphazardly tumbled into glass jars as an "Oh, maybe I should add a madeleine to my purchase" impulse buy, like magazines at the checkout register. Treating madeleines like that is unacceptable. I'm biased to Oro's display, where single madeleines are neatly lined up one after another. Sweet Melissa also manages a respectful display job, organizing each flavor on an individual tea tier, but the madeleines aren't among the best. Nonetheless, every madeleine deserves its own space.
Make Your Own Memorable Madeleine
This city has an interesting mix of madeleines—some very good, some very disappointing, others not quite madeleines. In the end, I haven't found any more enjoyable than those from my own oven. I use Nick Malgieri's recipe for classic madeleines, and it never fails. Once you have the basics down, the variations are endless. You can use cherries, lime, black sesame, or shards of dark chocolate, but classic lemon is always best in the end.
If you need madeleines in a pinch, or would prefer to stay far away from the oven on these humid summer days, go to Oro and Bouchon. And if you find a place that combines the best attributes of those two, let me know. I'll be there in a jiffy and would treat you to a cup of tea to round out our madeleine.
About the author: Kathy YL Chan is a Hawaiian living in New York City, performing unexciting accountant duties by day and eating voraciously by night. She documents her never-ending feasting on her blog A Passion for Food.